“I had people offering to buy four extra tickets to get the flight off the ground”: This woman organized a Noah’s Ark flight to bring pets home from the Cayman Islands to Toronto

“I had people offering to buy four extra tickets to get the flight off the ground”: This woman organized a Noah’s Ark flight to bring pets home from the Cayman Islands to Toronto

Toby, left, was on Nikole Poirier’s repatriation flight to reunite with his owners in Canada

At the end of 2019, marine biologist Nikole Poirier moved from her home in Banff, Alberta, to the Cayman Islands for work. Three months later, Covid hit, and when Poirier discovered repatriation flights would not allow animals on board, she organized a private charter flight to bring Canadians and their pets back home. Toronto Life spoke to Poirier about how it all came together.

As told to Andrea Yu

“I’m a marine biologist. I grew up in Banff but I’ve done aid work and conservation in 57 countries. In December 2019, I moved to the Cayman Islands with the goal of educating visitors on how to be stewards of the coral reef environment. I had been to the Cayman Islands a few times before, and I fell in love with the health of their reef. Around the world, coral reefs are bleaching and being destroyed due to increased human activity. There are few places in the world that can support the diversity of fish, and Cayman is one of them.

“I knew that if I wanted to represent the waters here, I needed to become familiar with them, so I decided to do a year of the grunt work. I got a job working on high-end yachts and helped host chartered boat rides for tourists. I also did underwater photography to capture the tourists’ experiences. As a result, I also got to learn about what was happening in the ocean here.

“Cayman’s great. It’s one of the friendliest places in the world. You think Canadians are nice—Caymanians are way nicer. The Cayman kindness is so prevalent people have a term for it: Caymankind. And there are plenty of Canadians here too. It’s a very multi-national place, with lots of ex-pats including Jamaicans, Cubans, Indians, Filipinos and South Africans.

“Three months after I arrived, Covid hit. We locked down our borders within four days, and expats had a choice—you either had four days to pack up your lives and get off-island, or you could wait out the virus. The day lockdown was announced, we had a charter booked, so I still showed up for work at the yacht. I got on the boat and chatted with my colleagues, who are European expats. I said, ‘Aren’t you worried?’ And they were like, ‘No, no, this will blow over.’ So they talked me off a ledge, and I decided to wait it out.

“By mid-March the tourists were gone. All the hotels emptied out. In the beginning, people here were pretty relaxed because they knew we were relatively safe—we were on an island. But our lockdown was stricter than anywhere I’ve heard about. You could only leave your house for 90 minutes a day, three days a week, to do grocery shopping or go to the bank. Those were the only places that were open. People whose surnames started with A to K could go out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and L to Z got Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. If you were out, the cops would stop you and make sure it was your ‘letter day.’

“The economy here relies on tourism, so once the borders closed, many jobs were lost, including mine. There’s nothing for support. We don’t have a CERB equivalent. I’m just living off of my savings. And the Cayman Islands is very, very, very expensive. A lot of money moves through here, and a lot of people in the finance sector here work in offshore banking because the Cayman Islands is considered a tax haven. But the cost of living is very high. To live as a pauper costs you about $4,000 Canadian a month. After I lost my job, I had to move from a rented house to a nanny suite where I helped care for someone’s children in exchange for cheap rent. But I have two cats, Muffin and Ollie, and they had to be confined to my room. We’ve since moved into a friend’s spare room, but I still have no source of income and bills to pay.

“I quickly realized that I couldn’t afford to stay much longer and I needed to return to Canada. But there were no flights leaving. I did everything. I contacted the Canadian Consulate in the Cayman Islands, then I reached out to the consulate in Jamaica. I reached out to the local government here, the premier’s office. I reached out to the chamber of commerce. I didn’t hear back from anyone. A consulate representative here in Cayman eventually got back to me and said they were doing everything they could. Meanwhile, I was terrified.

“On April 6, a British Airways repatriation flight came in from the U.K.. They brought in Covid testing kits, medical supplies, medical practitioners and military, and then flew passengers back to London. That was the first evacuation flight out of the Cayman Islands. My three colleagues—the ones who told me not to worry—were on this flight out. A lot of animals got abandoned after that British Airways flight. They were left with friends, placed in people’s homes or surrendered to the Humane Society. I worry many more were just left on the streets.

Passenger Carleigh Bell and her cat, Mo

“Eventually, the consulate announced an evacuation flight to Toronto on April 20, but we only got 48 hours notice, and we could only bring one piece of luggage. It was hectic: we’d have to pack up our lives, sell our cars, sell our stuff, inform our landlords. I thought I’d be getting on that flight, but once I heard that animals weren’t allowed, I knew I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to abandon my pets.

“I reached out again to my contact at the Canadian consulate, who suggested I reach out to Skyservice, a business aviation company, to inquire about chartering a flight. Skyservice offered me a Sunwing flight from the Cayman Islands to Toronto, which could bring back up to up to 100 passengers and up to 55 pets—either passengers’ animals, or animals travelling separately to reunite with their Canadian owners. The whole thing would cost $120,000, but I was determined to make it work. I called it my Noah’s Ark flight.

“The flight was scheduled for May 22 at 11:30 a.m. If it was going to happen, I had less than a month to bring together at least 80 people. Each passenger would pay $1,300. I wouldn’t charge anything for pets travelling with their owners, but we had two people already back in Canada who wanted us to fly their dogs home, so they each contributed to the cost of the flight as well.

“The biggest part of the job was getting the word out and getting people to trust me. I needed the support of both the Canadian and Caymanian governments, and they came through—the governor even brought up my flight in his daily briefings. I put the word out on Facebook and posted on popular social media accounts like the Canada Club of Cayman the Real Women of Cayman. The Canadian Consulate also sent out a letter to all Canadians registered in Cayman to help support the flight.

“I worked on this for 12 hours a day for a month. I never took a day off, and my phone never stopped ringing. By the end of it, I’d answered more than 5,000 emails, mostly from Canadians who needed to leave Cayman with their pets. Passengers who already signed up for the flight would come together and say, ‘Well, hey, I’ll buy three or four extra tickets if I have to so we can get this plane off the ground.’ We also had passengers saying they’d buy tickets for people who needed them. Within a few days of our deadline, we’d reached our minimum of 80 passengers, and in the end we had 94 passengers and 27 animals—10 cats and 17 dogs. About half would be staying in Toronto,  and the other half had connecting flights elsewhere in Canada. And we’d surpassed our minimum goal, I was able to refund $250 to each passenger.

Nikole Poirier, right, with Aimee McKie of the Must Love Dogs rescue organization

“I was supposed to get on that flight. But people were still calling me, and I realized I’d need to organize another charter to accommodate all the people and pets who were still left behind.

“Things went smoothly on the day of the flight. Everybody was such a team player, from the airline to the charter company to the people working at the airport. Aimee McKie, who runs an animal rescue organization in Cayman, brought along the two pets who were being repatriated, along with extra pee pads and muzzles for the dogs over 22 pounds. There was so much Cayman and Canadian kindness going around. It couldn’t have been better.

“Toby, a mutt rescued from Cayman, was one of the dogs who was being reunited with his owner in Canada. He had been appropriately sedated, and he was so chilled out waiting in line to check in that he lay down to take a nap in the queue. Every time they had to shuffle forward, his handler was like, ‘Toby! Toby!’ He would get up, move over and lie down again. If only all the dogs were that chilled out. Just before the flight was supposed to board, a 70-pound German Shepherd named Ike started howling in the middle of the airport. Aimee and I just dropped our jaws— I was convinced every single other dog in the airport was going to start howling. That was my only moment of fear. But the rest of the dogs stayed quiet. I was worried for Ike, since airlines can be strict, but he settled right into the flight and slept the whole way home.

“When that plane took off, I started bawling. I had such mixed emotions because I was like, Man, in four hours, I could be home. At the same time, I was filled with a huge amount of gratitude that we got the plane off the ground without a hitch.

Passenger Melissa McAlear with her dog, Opal

“This was the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done in my life. It gave me a great sense of purpose during the pandemic. I went from feeling stressed and fearful to making incredible friends all across the island. The passengers on the flight were so grateful. People sent me cases of wine to say thank you. One couple, who own a luxury guest cottage in British Columbia, invited me to stay for free for two weeks. Another couple, who knew I’m a marine biologist, gave me a set of beautiful underwater photography books that they wrote and shot themselves.

“I cried for three days, then I went back to organizing. I didn’t know if I could get another plane off the ground, but I was going to try. My second flight is booked for July 13. After the success of the first Noah’s Ark flight—which only allowed up to six dogs over 22 pounds—they’re now allowing an unlimited number of large dogs. That’s helped me bring together a lot more animal owners. We already have the minimum number of passengers for the next flight.

“And because the size regulations are loosened, we’re also bringing back 20 abandoned cats and dogs to adopted out by the Toronto Humane Society. It’ll cost $150 per cat and about $500 per dog to wrangle their permits, crates, muzzles, pee pads and customs fees. We started a GoFundMe to help raise money for the rescue animals.

“Things are slowly opening back up in Cayman again, but the tourism industry is probably on hold until January 2021, and chances are good that I’ll be on the second Noah’s Ark flight. It’s been great to connect to the community here, and it will be hard to leave behind. People have been so supportive, and it’s so heartwarming to be recognized by the community. I cannot wait to return and educate folks about the incredible marine and coral reef environment.”